It 'contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge'

Yad Vashem slams ‘highly problematic’ Israeli-Polish Holocaust statement

Joint declaration includes ‘grave errors and deceptions,’ institution’s historians argue; senior minister demands Netanyahu rescind it

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath of flowers during the official state ceremony for the national Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, on April 27, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath of flowers during the official state ceremony for the national Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, on April 27, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash 90)

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center on Thursday slammed an agreement between the governments of Israel and Poland regarding the latter’s record during the Holocaust, saying it would stifle free research on the subject.

A joint declaration issued by Warsaw and Jerusalem “contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field,” the institution said in a press release.

The statement is an embarrassing blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week hailed the agreement and the joint statement that was issued on the occasion as safeguarding “the historic truth about the Holocaust.”

Also on Thursday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett rejected the Polish-Israeli joint statement as factually inaccurate, saying that it will not be taught in Israel schools. Bennett further called on Netanyahu to rescind the statement or bring it to a vote in the cabinet for approval.

On June 27, Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki signed an agreement that ended the spat between the two countries over a controversial Polish law that criminalized any accusation of the Polish nation of being “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”

Minutes after the Polish parliament passed legislation to remove the troubling passages and President Anderzej Duda signed it into law, the Israeli and Polish governments issued a joint statement on the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it.

It declared that the term “Polish death camps” is “blatantly erroneous” and that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.”

The joint declaration, issued last Wednesday simultaneously by Netanyahu and Morawiecki, also rejected anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”

Most controversially, it condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”

Presenting the agreement and the statement in Tel Aviv last week, Netanyahu thanked Yad Vashem’s chief historian Dina Porat for “accompanying the work” that led to the agreement.

Earlier this week, The Times of Israel reported that while Porat was indeed involved in the secret negotiations with the Polish government, she did not get to see the final draft of the statement. Yad Vashem, which had issued a statement welcoming Warsaw’s annulment of the law’s controversial paragraphs, was disappointed about the wording of the joint statement, according to the source.

On Thursday, Yad Vashem released a long press release in which its historians detail why they not only contest the joint statement’s historical veracity, but are also dissatisfied with the Polish amendment to the controversial law.

“A thorough review by Yad Vashem historians shows that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions, and that the essence of the statute remains unchanged even after the repeal of the aforementioned sections, including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust,” the statement read.

Indeed, the statement “contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field,” the statement continued.

The joint Israeli-Polish declaration “effectively supports a narrative that research has long since disproved, namely, that the Polish Government-in-Exile and its underground arms strove indefatigably — in occupied Poland and elsewhere — to thwart the extermination of Polish Jewry.”

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi concentration camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

However, the Israeli historians add, the London-based Polish government-in-exile and its representatives in Nazi-occupied Poland “did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war. Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”

While the joint declaration — which Poles are actively promoting through full-page ads in newspaper across the globe — appears to give the same balance to Poles who helped Jews and those who persecuted them, Yad Vashem’s statement argues that “decades of historical research reveal a totally different picture: Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena.”

There were Poles who made “impressive” efforts to rescue Jews, but this “cannot be projected onto Polish society as a whole,” the historian argued.

“The attempt to amplify the relief that was extended to the Jews and portray it as a widespread phenomenon, and to minimize the role of Poles in persecuting the Jews, constitutes an offense not only to the historical truth, but also to the memory of the heroism of the Righteous Among the Nations.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki places a candle at a memorial wall with names of some of the Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, at the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. (AP/Alik Keplicz)

Furthermore, the historians “vehemently reject the attempts to juxtapose the phenomenon of antisemitism with so-called ‘anti-Polonism.’” While terms such as “Polish death camps” are indeed misleading, the term anti-Polonism “is fundamentally anachronistic and has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism.”

The cancellation of the section of the controversial Polish law that stipulated criminal sanctions for people accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi crimes “is undoubtedly important,” Yad Vashem’s statement notes.

However, the repeal “reverses the explicit exception that was made for academic research and artistic endeavor in the wording of the amendment,” it lamented. Furthermore, those who accuse Poland of complicity are still liable for civil prosecution, the statement pointed out.

In response, Joseph Ciechanover and Yaakov Nagel — the two Netanyahu confidants who negotiated the agreement with the Polish government — said that Porat, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, had been involved in the process since its inception and that she approved the joint declaration’s historical assertions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on June 27, 2018, to discuss Poland’s amended Holocaust Law. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The joint declaration signed by the Polish government includes an explicit reference to the fact that the ability to carry out research freely was preserved and that no law prevents it or will prevent it in the future,” they said in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Last week, as they presented the agreement and the statement in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu and his two confidants took great pride in their effort, say they had “stood on guard to protect the truth.”

“We upheld our prime duty to ensure the historic truth about the Holocaust and we will continue to do so,” Netanyahu said at the time.

Early critics of the agreement were leading Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who called it “a betrayal of the memory of the Holocaust and the interest of the Jewish people,” and MK Yair Lapid, who argued that Israel must not negotiate with Poland matters related to the Holocaust.

On Thursday, Bennett, the education minister, and several other opposition MKs joined the chorus of condemnation.

“Israel’s joint declaration with the Polish government is a disgrace that is full of lies and harms the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust,” Bennett tweeted, arguing that it “lacks factual and historical validity” and vowing it will not be taught in the education system.

The joint declaration was not presented to the government and does not represent the opinion of cabinet minister, he added. “It is unacceptable to me and as education minister I demand the prime minister immediately change or cancel it, or alternatively bring it to a vote in the cabinet, where I am sure it will rejected.”

Lapid, too demanded that Netanyahu rescind the agreement.

“The statement that Netanyahu has signed together with the prime minister of Poland is a disgrace and a scandalous embarrassment to the memory of Holocaust victims,” he said.

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